Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.

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Disbelief

Your friend has been accused of a terrible thing. Your first reaction is likely to be that you will want to believe this is wrong. The accuser has horrible motives of their own, perhaps (after all, this does happen). There’s been a mistake, a misunderstanding. Some explanation exists that makes it all ok. Not only do we do this when people we care about are accused of terrible things, we can do it when people we care about do terrible things to us. We love them, and so we want them to be decent people. We may shoulder the blame for what happened so that we can carry on believing they are good people.

We may believe that how a person has treated us is representative of who they are. This is often something that comes up when people defend abusers. What’s going on here is as much about the person offering the defence as anything else. If you believe that how a person presents to you, is how they are – which should be a sane and fair assumption – challenging that is uncomfortable. If they were hiding that part of themselves from you, why did they do that? Or were you not paying attention? Were the signs there all along? Should you have seen this? Did you unconsciously turn a blind eye? These are not comfortable places to explore.

We all like to believe in the value of our own judgement. In fact, believing that you can make good calls is a key thing for staying sane and functional. Of course we all want to defend our own judgement, because without that we’re horribly adrift. If my friend has done a terrible thing, and I didn’t see they were a person capable of doing a terrible thing, what does that say about me? What does it say about me if I truly loved a person who did a terrible thing? What if, knowing about the terrible thing, I can’t unlove them? What does that make me? If they lied to me and deliberately misled me, what’s wrong with me that I couldn’t see through that?

Sometimes it is easier to assume the best and be actively complicit at this point, rather than facing the painful alternatives. It may not be the accused person we are protecting, but ourselves, our sense of self, our confidence in ourselves. It’s an understandable response. It is also important to ask how much evidence you need to acknowledge that your friend has done a terrible thing. And that perhaps by association, you have enabled a terrible thing.

Sometimes, we don’t want to look too hard at the terrible thing our friend has done, because if we did, we’d have to question our own behaviour. If their attitude is rapey, maybe ours is too. If they are sexist, or racist and we haven’t seen that, maybe it’s because we have the same issues. If their shouting, temper tantrums and irresponsibility isn’t ok, maybe our similar actions aren’t ok either. And so we may be inclined to support them so that we don’t have to question ourselves.

Questioning yourself is hard. Recognising and putting down problematic behaviour and attitudes is hard. It all comes down to whether taking the easy path is always preferable, even if it means you don’t get to be an honourable person. It often means knowing, on some level, that you are out of order and having to live with the tension between who you want people to think you are, and how you are, and that can take quite a toll.


Re-personing

A person who doesn’t get their basic needs met can experience a loss of personhood as a consequence. If it starts in childhood, the sense of not qualifying as a proper person entitled to basic things can be hard to shake. Everything I’ve read about self-esteem has talked about how the individual with low self esteem has to develop more of it. Many people seem to assume that self esteem is natural and innate, and I think it isn’t. For most of us, how we feel about ourselves is influenced, if not defined by what we learn from our environments.

Developing self esteem is not something most of us can easily do alone. It is a process of building a sense of being a proper person deserving of all the things proper people get. What’s needed here, is a process of re-personing. Or for some people, getting to become a person for the first time.

If you are involved with someone who is de-personed, this will take time to change. A few positive comments here and there won’t fix things. They won’t magically change in face of a few small gestures. It’s important not to get cross with people if they are slower to re-person than you think they should be. It can take years of persistent, positive feedback to help a de-person become a person. They will likely have little confidence in themselves, they may be pessimistic, and from the outside their sense of self may look crazy. If you blame or shame them for this, you will add to the self esteem problems.

From the inside, it can be difficult trusting anyone who is positive. You may feel like they are setting you up to fail, or mocking you, or over-estimating you. Their positivity may seem like a build up to you inevitably letting them down. It’s hard to get past these things and it takes time. An evidence based approach here can work well – gather data on what actually happens. It won’t help that if you have low self esteem, your mistakes and messes will look bigger than your successes, but if you can identify successes at all, you’re under way.

If you’ve taken a serious emotional battering, you may feel that thinking well of yourself is dangerous. If you’ve been knocked down for being happy, for success, for getting too big for your boots and ideas above your station, the idea of good self esteem can itself be fearful. If you think that treating yourself as an ok person will attract violent pushbacks and emotional abuse, it can feel safer to stay with hating yourself. It takes time to learn how to trust other people not to do this to you. It takes courage to give people a chance to prove that they won’t knock you down as soon as you try to stand up. If you aren’t in a safe environment, you may be right to keep your head down.

We all need to spend most of our time in places that allow us to be people. We need room for our own feelings and responses, for our basic needs, and for a few wants and desires as well. We all need to feel safe and respected. If someone has robbed you of your self esteem, growing a new one is not a quick or easy process, but the thing to remember is that it can be done, and that you do not deserve to feel worthless.

If your cock-ups are normal, human mistakes – poor judgements, misunderstandings, over enthusiasm, insufficient knowledge and so forth, you do not deserve to be knocked down. There are worthless people amongst us, certainly. They spend their time on deliberate malice and cruelty, knocking down others, taking what they aren’t entitled to, grabbing and wounding as they go. And even in those cases, a punishment involving the denial of basic needs doesn’t seem like a good answer. If you’ve not deliberately harmed anyone else, you certainly don’t deserve to be treated like some sort of criminal.


Identifying your basic needs

One of the things that goes with poor self esteem is struggling to get basic needs met. It can be both a cause and a consequence of the esteem issues, creating vicious circles from which it is hard to escape.

People with good self esteem feel entitled to have their basic needs met. If their needs are not met, they treat it as a problem. For the person with poor self esteem, not getting your needs met can be evidence that you don’t deserve the basic care others receive. It can be proof of not being good enough. It can seem reasonable, if you feel you don’t deserve to be well treated. If you’re always told to put others first, if no one around you treats you like you matter, if your needs are minimalised, ignored, or worse yet, laughed at, this is difficult territory.

There are some basic things that all humans need. We need rest, food, and shelter. Anyone with any mobility needs opportunities to move. We need stimulation and interest in our lives. We need to feel valued and accepted. If you are denied something basic it can erode your confidence that you deserve any of the most basic things. Confident people tend to take what they need, or demand it, and make a fuss when basic needs aren’t met. People with low self esteem can find it hard to flag up such problems.

Whether the problem exists in the current environment, or in the past, is well worth a look. If you find it hard to express need or to raise it when needs aren’t met, there’s probably a history to this. At what time in your life were you denied your basic needs? If you can identify it, this helps greatly. If you are still in that situation, it is, I promise you, the situation that needs to change. Ask why it is hard to seek help, or to make sure you get your needs met. Ask what or who you are afraid of. Ask what expectations you have, or think others have.

The most fundamental need of all, is the need to feel entitled to the basic things that keep humans functioning. If you don’t feel entitled to be treated like everyone else, this is a tough thing to overcome. I think it helps to figure out why this is the case. If you’ve got anyone you think is on your side, talk to them. If you have trouble thinking about what you would need, think of someone you love, and then think about what you would want for them in the same situation. It can be a good way of going around an issue.

If your self esteem has been damaged such that you struggle to get your basic needs met, then one of the things you need is a kinder and more supportive environment in which you can build a better sense of self. Move towards the people who treat you well, and do what you can to get away from the influence of anyone who treats you as though you do not deserve the most basic things. No one develops poor self esteem alone. It isn’t a failing on your part. It isn’t something inherently wrong with you, it’s something born of a context. If that context is in your past, you have a better chance at letting it go and rediscovering yourself. If you are in a situation that is sapping you, it may be harder to get out or to seek better spaces, but I urge you to try, and that no one, ever deserves to feel worthless.

If you find you are living in an abusive environment that you’ve tolerated because you thought you were worthless, please take note: Leaving is the most dangerous time. When you leave, you are at greatest risk of violence. Get help. You deserve help, and help can be found. Talk to the police.


After the abuse

One of the things that can be very tough for someone leaving an abusive situation, is the emotional aftermath. Where romantic partners and friends are concerned, the process of coming to terms with abuse can be very difficult. I think coming out of bullying in the workplace is easier because the odds are you didn’t have that much emotional investment to begin with. That makes it simpler to recognise the bullying and to put it behind you.

You love someone – be that romantically or in friendship. You love them, and trust them and invest in them. You assume that they love you. When they tell you they were only trying to help, or it was for your own good, you believe them. When they tell you it was a mistake or an accident, you believe them. We’re all human, we all mess up. You accept your friend, or your lover, and you accept their flaws and shortcomings. Victims of abuse are often persuaded by their abuser that nothing wrong has happened. It is the love the victim has for the abuser that makes such persuasion possible.

Then, at some point, something happens to make you question this. You catch them in a lie. You find you just can’t take any more of how they treat you, and you reconsider what their behaviour means. Or perhaps they turn on you, telling you they despised you all along. Perhaps they are the ones who leave, and they knock you down hard as they go. All of their previous behaviour is now reframed by something that makes it look like perhaps they never were your friend or ally. Perhaps they hated you all along. Perhaps you were a resource to use, an ego boost, a whipping post.

If you’ve never been there, you may think at this point, shocked and heartbroken, that it would be easy to walk away. It isn’t. What you end up with are two incompatible realities. In the old reality, this was your beloved, or your dear friend, someone you were open hearted with and trusted. In the new reality, this person thinks ill of you, may be a real danger to you. It is painful thinking so badly of someone you loved so you may try and resist that. You may hold onto the old love, and try to find excuses for what’s happening. You may want to fix things or try to change things. If they come back after this latest offence and make sorry noises and offer excuses, you may accept that and go another round with them.

This is part of why domestic abuse victims often find it so hard to leave their abusers. If you love someone and are in the habit of forgiving them, it’s a difficult turnaround to accept that you can’t afford to keep doing that. It is really hard to believe the worst of someone you love. It is often easier to carry on believing they are ok, even when they are manifestly mistreating you.

If you have other people in your life who truly care for you and support you, then you will be able to compare them to the abuser, and it will help you see what’s not acceptable. This is one of the reasons abusers will often try to isolate their victims. If you are alone, and the abuser is the only person you’ve got, you may cling to them because there’s nothing else. Letting go is very hard in that context, as is believing that anyone else could ever treat you well.

It takes time to change the story of your relationship with a person. It takes time to unpick what seemed like love or friendship, and accept that it wasn’t. It is a hard thing to swallow, when you suspect that you’ve opened your heart to someone who has abused your trust. It is natural to resist that interpretation and to want to think the best of people. It is a hard thing admitting that your friend or lover is full of shit, and has no love for you at all. During that unpicking time, you are likely to feel disorientated and vulnerable.

There are no easy answers in this sort of situation. I think the important thing to know is that there’s nothing weird about finding it difficult. In the aftermath of abuse and the lies that always go with it, figuring out what’s real takes time.


Affirming each other’s feelings

When we affirm each other’s feeling, we affirm the right to feel, which is a key thing for good self esteem. We may also be affirming the right to be different. In accepting and honouring each other’s feelings, we have the chance to properly know and understand each other. We don’t oblige the people around us to only express the things we are comfortable with. Undertaken as a small, everyday activity, affirming each other in this way enriches and deepens relationships.

My personal feeling is that no emotion is ever wrong. How we express it may be open to question, but a genuine, felt response is what it is. Sometimes what I feel doesn’t make much sense to anyone else. It can be easy to hurt, shame or ridicule me when this happens. I’m used to being told I over-react or that I make no sense and am ridiculous. I’m also very aware of what happens when dealing with people who don’t rubbish me. When I’m allowed to explain so that I do make more sense, or when my not making sense is acceptable. When I’m given that space I feel more like a real person and more able to navigate.

Telling people off for doing drama and being irrational is a really quick way to shut someone down. We don’t all come to a situation with the same perspective. Some of us have triggers. Some of us are carrying terrible baggage. Some of us are panicked overthinkers, able to see potential problems others would never imagine. Most of us who are this way have got here through experience – it may be out of date knowledge but it most certainly isn’t irrational or unfounded. I note that the people who have done me most harm in life have also been the quickest to rubbish my feelings.

Listening to each other is powerful. Being willing to admit that you don’t understand, is powerful. Acknowledging that something doesn’t have to make sense to you for it to be real, is powerful. Ask how the people around you feel, and let them speak. Don’t argue with people if you think they *shouldn’t* feel a certain way – instead, show them respect by acknowledging this is what they’ve got as a starting point. Let people be as they are, and they can be honest with you.

So many things are more tolerable and possible to get through if you are allowed to be yourself while doing it. Being told off for how you feel is an identity-wounding experience. It’s often inflicted on people who are grieving and who hear that they should be over it by now. Depressed people are told to pull themselves together. Anxious people are told to stop making a fuss. None of those instructions alleviate distress, they just protect the person seeing it from having to keep on seeing it. My discomfort at your pain is more important than your pain – nothing devalues a person like treating them this way.

When we take each other seriously, we can lift each other up. But what, I hear you ask, do we do about the people who manufacture drama, and make a fuss, and over react, because that happens…? My guess is that where this is true (and I think it often isn’t) you’re dealing with someone who desperately needs attention. If they get attention on a day to day basis and are treated like their ordinary feelings matter, there may be a lot less incentive for the manufactured stuff. If the need for drama comes from wounding, dismissal or feelings of having no personal power otherwise, the affirmation of being taken seriously is the one thing most likely to shift this. If you’re going to challenge someone, it’s a good deal more effective if you know what’s going on with them first. Out of date coping mechanisms can need challenging, but it helps when that’s done kindly.

Whatever is going on with a person, no one becomes better, or more functional as a consequence of having their feelings rubbished and ignored. It is however an effective way of silencing complaint and distress, which is why rubbishing the victim’s responses is a normal part of bullying and abuse.


The people who live in your head

We all assemble ideas about the people around us. In normal circumstances, that’s a work in progress as we try to improve our insight and understanding. However, it doesn’t always go like that. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding every now and then a person whose imaginary me is so removed from anything I can recognise that it proves disturbing to deal with them.

They often feel moved to tell me what I’m ‘really like’, and what I’m really like tends to be damning. Most usually it revolves around being mean, selfish, self important and power hungry, usually with a side order of being needy, doing drama, over reacting and making no sense. I worry about who I am for people, so when this has come up, I’ve cross-referenced with others who know me. The majority of people I know are fine with me, and I tend to trust that. So, here’s a poem on the subject…

 

What the actual fuck?

 

You’ve done it now, you’ve looked at me

And so there grows inside your head

Some version of a Nimue

Based on some little thing I said.

 

A Nimue I can’t control

Who lives a life I cannot see

And does the things you thinks she does

And does not owe that much to me.

 

The Nimue inside your hear

Can bear the weight of your projection

Be the villain of your tale

Blamed for your feelings of dejection.

 

The Nimue inside your head

May crave a torrid love affair

And offer great, or ghastly things.

I do not know. I was not there.

 

Blame me for who you think I am

Rage ‘gainst what you think I do

The Nimue inside your head

Is mostly made of you.

 

But once I’ve taken residence

Uncanny things may come to pass.

Your inner me could act like me,

And kick your sorry arse.


Dealing with broken trust

Betrayal is a normal human experience. Having gone a few rounds with it myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst of the pain and damage betrayal causes is not about the immediate harm done. It’s about my relationship with reality.

Partly this is because my sense of self is relational. I don’t see myself as a discreet unit. Who I am is informed by who I interact with and how I interact with them. Who I love, who I invest in, and who I spend my time with shapes my identity. If I trust someone and they betray that trust, I am left questioning who I am. The more invested I was, the more disorientating it is. I then have to decide whether the broken trust is somehow my fault – I know I am pre-disposed to self blame. I question whether I deserved it and what it says about me. On several occasions of back-stabbing, I’ve just had to retreat from everyone because it has left me feeling like I couldn’t do relationships with people at all. These days I am a good deal more resilient.

When we invest trust in a person, we invest in them as part of our reality. When they break that trust, it can be world shattering. I’ve been round this a few times now, and for reasons of comfort am going to focus on the oldest example I’ve experienced. I was in my early twenties, and I worked with someone for a year. At the end of that year, it became obvious that I’d been lied to at every turn, used, and compromised. The worst of the damage was done to someone else. My reality was broken. I no longer knew what was real, or what I could trust. It took me a long time to pick the truth from the lies, and I felt very unstable and vulnerable as I was doing it.

I’ve had to repeat that process several times now, with varying degrees of severity. I note that the shock to my sense of what’s real is the hardest thing to take. I watch myself flailing about trying to make a new story that accommodates everything. I doubt myself – how could I have been so blind, so foolish, so naive? Is this what happens to people who are too trusting? Should I harden myself, close my heart, keep everyone out… Each time I’ve been round this I’ve taken the conscious decision not to let whatever’s happened become the story my life revolves around. I choose not to treat anyone based on the ways I have been betrayed by those I trusted. I give other people second chances and third chances and opportunities to do better. I keep my heart open, even when openness feels like a bleeding wound. It is a choice.

Not all betrayals are deliberate, some are just awkward collisions of people on different trajectories who mean each other no harm but cannot help the damage done. It does not take long to see that in a set of experiences. The normal ending of a romantic relationship can be much that way. What feels like betrayal at the time softens with perspective, becomes understandable and easier to let go of. Deliberate betrayal is a whole other thing. It’s usually full of lies and the intent to mislead. It may well include the intention to cause harm and inflict suffering. It may want your money or other resources, it may just be in it for the pleasure of seeing you knocked down. It encourages you to see the worst in everyone.

I think back over the people who I know have deliberately betrayed me in this sort of way. I note that none of them were happy or confident, even though most presented as really sure of themselves. I note that there was a lot wrong in their lives, and where I know how it played out after me, that remains the case. I think they were all so invested in the idea of being unlovable, that they would break the person who loved them rather than change their own story. Which is tragic. Most people, given some safe space to thrive in, will thrive. Some people are so wounded in themselves that they have to fail, they have to ruin everything so as to confirm their own stories about their own identity. Of course it’s disorientating when you get caught up in someone else’s madness in that way. But, the one thing that cannot be done, is to save a person from themselves. Only they can do that.


Life lessons

Here are some things I’ve learned recently. Some of them should have been blindingly obvious all along, but there we go. That these are things I have had to learn is perhaps worth mentioning in and of itself.

I’m not an infinite resource. I can’t keep giving and being patient, and accepting, and not making a fuss when things aren’t ok for me. I can’t keep pretending to be ok when I’m not. If I do that, I don’t get to feel like a person and it gnaws away at my roots and eventually I will fall over.

I should expect people to care about me, and care if I am not ok. I should particularly expect this of anyone who claims my friendship. If a person is inclined to claim my friendship and make use of me, the very least I should expect is that they care about me. If I love someone, or I love their work, it does not give them a free pass to treat me any way they like. There is nothing unreasonable or demanding about needing to be something more than a resource to use.

If a person finds me too difficult, unreasonable, hard work or anything else of that ilk, it does not mean I am automatically obliged to try and make them feel more comfortable.

It is not my job to fix everything. If I cannot fix something, I need to admit defeat and own that it may not be mine to fix. I need to recognise my own limits. If I have to make myself smaller, tolerate pain, or sacrifice something of myself to fix a problem, I should really question that rather than cracking on with it.

I have some bloody amazing people in my life who have no qualms about challenging me when I’m being self-harming in these ways. I am going to pay a good deal more attention to the people who care whether I am ok or not, and who want the best for me. I am going to listen when they tell me not to do things, and I am going to take their concerns for me seriously. I don’t really know how to take care of myself and I’ve spent most of my life treating that like it doesn’t even matter, and not resisting the people who want to treat me like I don’t matter. I can listen to the people who do not want to watch me getting hurt, and I can learn from them.


Non-binary reality

One of the reasons I ended up on the druid path and not exploring witchcraft, was the issue of polarity. I read about the power of polarity, of opposites, and I knew I’d never be able to make that work. With hindsight (and more reading) I think this may be more of a wiccan issue, but I don’t regret the choice. The opposition of male and female makes no direct sense to me.

I don’t tend to view the world in binary terms. Either/or doesn’t work for me. I see spectrums. I see multiple options. Give me two things that are supposed to be binary opposites, and I can do both, or neither, or something in between. That’s part of why I have a thinking about feeling column here. I’ve always found it weird that logic and emotion are so often set up as opposites. Then logic is understood as a male characteristic and female people get given emotion, and never the two shall meet. In practice, this cuts people off from half of themselves, and it works well for no one.

I’ve always found the introvert/extrovert notion confusing, too. For me, this is also a spectrum, and one I may turn up on at any point. I can be both extremely introverted, and distinctly extroverted, depending on energy levels and context. Ask me to sing, if you want me to go into a more extroverted mode.

When we label people, we tend to assume they are one thing or another. A person who is identified as kind can get a great deal of unpleasant feedback if they say no to someone else’s professed needs, or get cross about something. In practice, a person can be both fragile and tough, educated and foolish, confident and easily shaken – humans are full of contradictions at the best of times, and we are more complex than we seem to notice.

One of the memes I see going round regularly on twitter is that Persephone is both spring flower maiden and goddess of the underworld. Both. It’s a good thing to remember if you aren’t tidily one thing or another.